09/10/2013 12:20 EDT | Updated 11/10/2013 05:12 EST

Quick TIFF Reviews: Gravity (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Perhaps the most beautiful image I have seen at this Festival comes about halfway through Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. Sandra Bullock, playing a novice astronaut who has just survived a staggering ordeal, floats in the fetal position in the womb-like enclosure of an airlock, an umbilical-esque tether drifting around her weightless body. It is sensual, serene, and among the only instances of respite in a film that ratchets up the intensity with each whizbang action sequence in its brisk 91-minute runtime.

Working from the sparest of stories -- three astronauts are on a spacewalk when a sudden calamity ensues and the two survivors have to try to make it back to safety which, in space, is a tall order -- Cuaron manages nevertheless to imbue his film with an emotional depth rare among action- and spectacle-based movies.

This is not exactly a thinking-person's sci-fi picture since, well, it features a whole lot more awesome crashes and explosions than meaningful dialogue, but it refuses to bend to any too-conventional storytelling clichés either. As much as it appears to be a film about the human will to survive, more honestly it is a movie about shock and awe. And I am completely OK with that. Indeed, when a flick looks and feels this immersive, is this engrossing, and carries this weighty an emotional punch, I'm not sure the other stuff matters all that much.

In her best and most compelling performance since Speed, Sandra Bullock proves an inspired casting choice for the lead. As the emotional centre of the film (and, moreover, the only person on-screen for long stretches of the movie), Bullock's Ryan is the perfect everywoman. We identify with her at first blush. We feel her queasiness, her anxiety, and then, palpably, her dread. This is only amplified by George Clooney's utterly winning performance as her opposite number: a seasoned veteran out for his final space walk, quipping and bragging and joshing with Houston (voiced by Ed Harris in one of several nods to Apollo 13), even after disaster strikes. Because Bullock is as tightly wound as Clooney is relaxed, the audience, identifying with her disquiet, comes to rely on Clooney for stability just as she does. Until she -- and we -- can't, anymore. That's when things get really interesting.

A quick-paced, hard-charging adrenaline ride of a movie, Gravity takes us into the heart of an infinite darkness and then leads us home. As exciting as it is technically virtuosic -- the opening shot, a camera weaving in and out and around a space station, exceeds 12 breathtaking minutes -- Gravity invites us to reconsider the possibilities of the "popcorn movie." Thank god for that.


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